Tim Ung and his family escaped war-torn Cambodia over 40 years ago. Now he is running his second City2Surf to raise money for refugees.
What was the situation for you and your family in Cambodia before you left?
The five-year civil war in Cambodia ended in April 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power. Soon afterwards, the new regime sent residents of all the towns and cities to work in the countryside. I had just turned 13 years old. By the time the regime collapsed in January 1979, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians (out of a population of seven million) had died. I lost my father, many brothers and numerous relatives.
Can you tell us about your journey to Australia?
My family first fled to Thailand. Unfortunately, Thai authorities could not cope with this sudden influx of refugees and decided to take drastic action. In June 1979, an estimated 45,000 refugees were rounded up, trucked across the country, and pushed back into live minefields in Cambodia. A bomb detonated about 10 metres from my family. We were shielded from harm only by other unfortunate victims. Thousands are estimated to have perished in the minefields.
After this incident, the United Nations, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations reached an agreement with Thailand to provide safe havens for Cambodian refugees. Many camps were then set up along the border to house hundreds of thousands of refugees that continued to flee war and starvation in Cambodia. In January 1980, my family made our second attempt and successfully reached the safety of a refugee camp. We lived there for 10 months, surviving solely on food and water provided by UNHCR.
After our application for resettlement was approved, we were moved from the refugee camp to a holding centre. Then in December 1980 we travelled to Australia on an airplane. We didn't have a cent to our name at that stage.
What was it like resettling in Australia?
I worked in a factory for a few years and attended TAFE in the evenings. In 1986 I was able to secure a place at university, and in 1991 I graduated with an engineering degree. It was extremely difficult to study at such a high academic level with my limited knowledge of English. It was far from smooth sailing living in a new country, but I was able to reap the benefits of my hard work. Australia has given me many opportunities to improve my life.
When did you start running? What do you love about it?
I have always been involved in many sports but running was not on the list. I couldn’t even run 100 metres without stopping. The COVID-19 lockdown changed all that. I needed to maintain my fitness and running was one of the few activities allowed outdoors. I progressed from short runs to five kilometres and then longer runs. Running has now become a wonderful way to improve my health and fitness.
I had heard of the City2Surf race for a long time but never thought I would be one of the participants. But now I love the festival-like atmosphere of big running events. There is no need to worry about the traffic, all I have to do is concentrate on running.
Why did you choose to start fundraising for refugees?
I have been there. I was a refugee. I know our suffering all too well.
I choose to support UNHCR because I want to give something back in return for the assistance that I received in the past. And this way, I can also help others.
Do you have any fundraising tips?
A well-publicised event such as City2Surf is a great time to fundraise. Six weeks before the run is the time when I would post my fundraising page on social media to inform friends and relatives. Then I would recommend sharing weekly updates so the page remains fresh and active. A few private messages to individuals are also useful. In the week before the race, I post a daily reminder of my preparation and the amount raised.
Why do you think Australians should support this cause?
For humanity. As Australians, we are in a position to assist people in time of hardship. Refugees are supposed to be protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, yet many have been denied this protection. Our fair go culture should remind all Australians that those who seek our support and protection deserve to have their stories heard and assessed fairly.
Is there anything else you’d like supporters to know?
I would like to express one thousand heartfelt thanks to all supporters and donors. Every dollar raised will make a difference to someone’s life.
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.